At the Movies: Six Horror Movies that are Actually Scary

As the weather turns chilly, it's nice to curl up and watch something scary. But many horror movies just don't cut it. Here's a look at five really scary films, and what makes them so frightening.

I’ve watch a lot of horror movies, and have been for much of my life. There’s something comforting about them, amid the wailing spirits of the vengeful dead, the screams of the victims, and the ominous settings. My mother used to tell me ghost stories before bed, so maybe it’s the association of being warm and safe, or maybe it’s the idea that I can look into the abyss of horror while knowing that I’m safe and sound on the couch. That’s why we like horror movies. They allow us to experience fear and come to terms with the darker elements of life without putting ourselves in any actual danger.

But when you watch enough horror movies, you start to become, well, to be frank, a snob. I’ve watched a lot of horror movies, and it takes more than a creepy pale little girl, jerkily-moving creatures of odd proportion and texture, or gooey zombies to scare me. In fact, most of that stuff makes me giggle. A lot. Why? Because it’s not scary. I’ve seen movies do the same thing over and over as though they think it’s something new. And mostly, it’s just boring. I’ve become so familiar with all those blankly staring demonic children and zombie hordes that they’ve ceased to phase me.

This, of course, does not stop me from watching these movies. They’re just so much fun.

So what makes a horror movie horrific? What makes it scary? What is scary, anyway?

The single most frightening thing, of course, is the unknown, the thing that lurks just outside your field of vision. You can’t see it. You don’t know what it looks like, what it’s thinking, or what it can do. For me, the most disappointing scene in many a horror film is when you actually see the monster. I was smirking through Insidious as it was (mainly because of the tagline: “Insidious is insidious.” Really?), and then we finally got a view of the demonic presence.

It looked like Darth Maul from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. I burst out laughing.

A horror movie, like any other movie, must be more than the sum of its parts. We’ve all seen the formulaic set-ups thousands of times. It’s the set-up that’s come to be parodied in films like Cabin in the Woods. You know the one: five pretty young things removed from their normal habitat. Personal tensions fly, and in the meantime, some horrific force or creature has been awoken, usually out of the main characters’ ignorance, arrogance, or both. Terror ensues. Ultimately, these kinds of horror movies often have characteristics of morality tales. The characters’ trespasses are punished, questionable moral behavior is swiftly dealt with, and the virgin is the lone survivor. These kinds of horror movies actually all tell the same story, and the setting, characters and monsters are just details. The truth of the matter is that the run-of-the-mill horror movies just don’t have very interesting stories. They have familiar stories. You already know the plot, you know when something is going to pop out and scare you, and you know, pretty much, what’s going to happen in the end. While they might be full of ghosts and chainsaw-wielding psychopaths, but they’re ultimately comforting in their familiarity. They tell us what we already know.

A really scary film, however, is unnerving. It opens up the chasm of the unknown and makes us look into it, make us question what we think we know, and makes us question ourselves. Because once we know something, what it looks like, what it moves like, some of the terror is diminished. The real terror comes from what it could be. Real terror comes from inside our own heads.

So here’s a list of some of the horror films that are actually scary. I’ve selected them based on their impact on me, and some of them cross genre boundaries, but I’m categorizing them all, for the purpose of this list, under the umbrella term of horror.

1. The Haunting. Robert Wise, 1963. Forget the 1999 remake with Catherine Zeta Jones. I haven’t seen the remake because as far as I’m concerned, it shouldn’t have been remade in the first place. This film is based on Shirley Jackson’s novella The Haunting of Hill House (which I also recommend). It’s a pretty standard setup: four strangers in a house that’s rumored to be haunted, trying to witness evidence of the supernatural. This movie works because most of the haunting takes place within the characters themselves. Is the house haunted, or are they unraveling? You won’t hear the creaking of your house the same way again. Free of blood, sex, and monsters, this is actually a pretty good movie for the family—if your family is into being creeped out. Younger children, however, may not appreciate the nuances.

2. The Innkeepers. Ti West, 2011. Like The Haunting, this movie is all about what you’re not seeing, and how strong the power of suggestion can be. The characters are believable and likeable, and this movie gets bonus points with me because the female lead is charmingly awkward. The plot involves two paranormal-obsessed employees of an old hotel, who are spending a weekend a soon-to-be-closing hotel with a history of tragedy and ghostly tales. Both this film and The Haunting are somewhat slow in pace, and quiet compared to a lot of horror films, so if you’re looking for action, you may want to skip these. This film is pretty tame, but there are one or two disturbing scenes, and there’s some rude language.

3. Event Horizon. Paul W.S. Anderson, 1997. Yeah, I know, it’s a sci-fi thriller, but it’s pretty horrifying. This is a larger-budget film and it doesn’t skimp on the special effects or the gore. The Innkeepers and The Haunting are both good horror movies for the more squeamish, who like a good creepy story but without the viscera. This is not one of those movies. This film follows the tale of the crew of the Event Horizon (which is probably not the best thing to name your spacecraft), who, in an attempt to salvage another ship, open a transdimensional portal into a realm of utter chaos. Screaming, vivisection and the characters’ personal terrors manifested ensue. While it’s definitely less subtle that the previous two, it again deals with the terror of the unknown, and of the unknown in one’s own mind. Do not show this to children. Just. Don’t.

4. Alien. Ridley Scott, 1979. Like Event Horizon, I’m including this sci-fi movie because, well, it’s really scary. Also because the concept of being alone in the black void of space is a rather frightening concept. What’s great about Alien, though, is that while it appears to be a science fiction, it’s got its groundings in good old-fashioned horror. I’ve heard this film referred to as “a slasher movie in space.” On a seemingly routine mission, the crew of a mining ship allows an alien creature on board, where it systematically murders them. While the Alien is, in fact, a guy in a rubber suit, the beauty of this movie is that you never really get a good look at it. Ridley Scott himself puts it best: "I've never liked horror films before, because in the end it's always been a man in a rubber suit. Well, there's one way to deal with that. The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw." This film isn’t as gory as Event Horizon, but it’s not advised for the little ones, what with all the chestbursting.

5. Night of the Living Dead. George A. Romero, 1968. At last, some zombies! Tame by today’s standards, its grisly scenes and bleak ending shocked moviegoers in its day. The film focuses on a group of survivors in a house, fending off waves of zombie attacks. If you like zombies, this is your movie. The zombies shuffle, societal tensions are played out in the microcosm of the house’s living room, and the film makes allusions to racism, the Vietnam War and the disintegration of the patriarchal family. Zombies, whose popularity has been high recently, are fantastic horror material. Why? Because they’re us. They’re everyday people, friends and neighbors, who have ceased to be themselves and have become mindless shells driven only by hunger. Pretty creepy. This film is a classic, and you should probably see it, but it’s not advised for young children or the very squeamish, as there’s a good deal of black-and-white gore.

6. Paranormal Activity. Oren Peli, 2007. I was really pleasantly surprised by this movie. I didn’t think I would like it at all, but I do. A low-budget indie film that made it big, Paranormal Activity is the “documentation” of a couple’s dealing with their home being haunted. Or, more specifically, one of them being haunted. The characters are frankly kind of annoying sometimes, but in that, they seem like very real people, and it’s an interesting look at the different ways people deal with challenges, from shutting down to getting aggressive. I’d advise this movie, but, as is often the case, the sequels don’t live up to the first one, and the story becomes increasingly convoluted in the second and third installments (and a fourth one is apparently in the making). The movie has some genuinely good scares, and the “found footage” style always lends an element of creepiness; with a handheld camera, for example, your sight is limited, and so you always feel like there’s something you’re missing. There’s some language and sexual references, and as far as the scares, they’re mainly off-camera and unseen, but you might be jumpy for a while after watching.

So there you have it. Horror movies are great for snuggling up on the couch with a blanket (to hide behind. And yes, I do that, too) and a cup of tea when the weather turns autumnal. Watch them alone if you’re brave, or grab a few friends or family members and have yourself a fright fest. And if there are some good, creepy films I’ve missed, be sure to let me know about them.

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joshua tanner October 10, 2012 at 11:24 PM
"The Haunting" is a great movie by a great director. I would never have expected an eerie movie from the director of "the Sound of Music". I first saw the movie as a kid staying up late. There was a part with banging in the mansion halls at night while investigators were trying to sleep. After the banging stopped, one woman thanked another for holding her hand during the scare in the dark of night. The other woman said "But I wasn't holding your hand!" Major creep out. Like you, I didn't want to see the remake and missed the film in theaters. Then last year I watched it and was surprised it was pretty decent. The house used is spectacular. Thanks for list - I will try some of these other films
Laura C. October 11, 2012 at 02:25 PM
That's right, he did direct "The Sound of Music"! I have to look into more of his work, as he obviously has an impressive range. I still haven't seen the remake; from what I understand it's rather a departure from the original storyline. If you haven't read the Shirley Jackson book, that's a good one--and surprisingly humorous as well as scary.


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